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eSolar Sierra

photo: eSolar

The U.S. Department of Energy on Friday began accepting applications for at least $3 billion in direct funding of renewable energy power plant projects.

The funding, part of the federal stimulus package, is in lieu of a 30 percent investment tax credit that green energy developers can take on their projects. Given that most solar and wind developers carry no tax liabilities, they have relied on investment banks and other investors to front the hundreds of millions and billions of dollars in financing needed for their projects in exchange for the tax credits. But as the economy tanked along with investment banks, demand for so-called tax equity partnerships evaporated.  Big Solar projects stalled and wind developers delayed turbine orders.

Curiously, the Department of Energy said on Friday that the $3 billion would fund some 5,000 projects. That works out to about $600,000 per power plant. But a single 250-megawatt solar power plant alone can cost more than a $1 billion and would thus soak up $300 million or 10% of the funding pool.

The question is, will DOE end up funding a few large-scale green energy projects that could start to give, say, the solar thermal industry economies of scale, or will it spend the money on hundreds of smaller renewable energy facilities?

That’s a crucial issue for solar developers like Tessera Solar/Stirling Energy Systems, eSolar and BrightSource Energy, which is backed Google (GOOG), Morgan Stanley (MS) and VantagePoint Venture Partners as well as a clutch of oil giants – Chevron (CVX), BP (BP) and Norway’s StatoilHydro.

Also left unsaid in the DOE’s announcement was the fact that renewable energy projects need to break ground by the end of 2010 to qualify for the direct funding. Which is why BrightSource, Nextera Energy (a subsidiary of utility giant FPL Group (FPL) ) and Tessera Solar are eager to expedite the lengthy California licensing process and get their projects approved before New Year’s Eve 2010 so they can put shovel to dirt and start shoveling cash into their coffers.

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Stirling SunCatcher

photo: Tessera Solar

When it comes to renewable energy, Texas has been all about Big Wind. But this week the Lone Star State took on its first Big Solar project when San Antonio utility CPS Energy signed a 27-megawatt deal with Tessera Solar.

Houston-based Tessera is the solar farm developer for Stirling Energy Systems, which makes a Stirling solar dish. Resembling a giant mirrored satellite receiver, the 25-kilowatt solar dish focuses the sun’s rays on a Stirling engine, heating hydrogen gas to drive pistons that generate electricity. (Last year Irish green energy firm NTR pumped $100 million into Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Stirling Energy Systems and created Tessera to develop solar power plants using the Stirling dish, called the SunCatcher.

Stirling Energy Systems previously signed deals with Southern California Edison (EIX) and San Diego Gas & Electric (SRE) to supply up to 1,750 megawatts of electricity from some 70,000 solar dishes to be planted in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts.

Other solar developers privately have cast doubt on Stirling’s ability to make good on those contracts, arguing the SunCatcher is just too expensive and complex to compete against solar thermal technologies that rely on mirrors to heat liquids to create steam that drives electricity-generating turbines.

But earlier this week, Stirling unveiled the latest generation of the SunCatcher at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M. The new SunCatcher has shed 5,000 pounds and its Stirling hydrogen engine contains 60% fewer parts than the previous version, according to the company.

The SunCatcher also uses a fraction of the water consumed by competing solar thermal technologies being developed by startups like BrightSource Energy and Ausra — no small deal in the desert. Tessera solar farms also can be built in modules, meaning that when a 1.5 megawatt pod of 60 SunCatchers is installed it can immediately begin generating electricity — and cash.

California utility PG&E also went modular Thursday when it signed a 92-megawatt deal with New Jersey’s NRG (NRG) for electricity to be generated by a Southern California solar power plant using eSolar’s technology. Google-backed (GOOG) eSolar’s builds its solar power tower plants in 46-megawatt modules. The power plants take up much less land than competing solar thermal technologies, thanks to eSolar’s use of sophisticated software to control small mirrors that are packed close together.

NRG earlier this month signed a deal to build a 92-megawatt eSolar-powered solar farm in New Mexico near the Texas border.

eSolar CEO Bill Gross says his solar farms will generate electricity cheaper than natural gas-fired power plants, a claim PG&E (PCG) appears to confirm in its submission of the deal to the regulators. (Thanks to Vote Solar for pointing to the document.)

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eSolar Sierra
photo: eSolar

California may be in the midst of licensing dozens of massive megawatt solar power plants but New Mexico may be first state out of the gate with a big project using next-generation solar thermal technology. On Thursday, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson announced that Pasadena, Calif.-based eSolar and utility giant NRG Energy will build a 92-megawatt solar thermal power plant — the state’s first — near the Texas border that will go online in 2011.

“The New Mexico Public Utilities Commission has approved the project, we have the permits and  we already have the land so we’ll be breaking ground in 2010,” eSolar CEO Bill Gross told Green Wombat. “We already have the equipment and the financing partner, NRG. We’re ready to go.”

In February, Google-backed (GOOG) eSolar agreed to supply its technology to NRG (NRG) to develop solar farms generating 500 megawatts.

eSolar will use fields of mirrors to focus the sun on water-filled boilers that sit atop towers. The heat vaporizes the water and the resulting steam drives electricity-generating turbines. Competitors use large, slightly curved — parabolic — mirrors to focus sunlight. That requires big and expensive steel frames to hold the glass in place.  eSolar’s solution: make small flat mirrors the size of an LCD television screen that clamp on to a  5 x 12-inch frame and then use software and Big Iron computing to position the mirrors to create a “dynamic parabola” out of the entire heliostat field.  Gross says eSolar’s small heliostats can be cheaply manufactured take up less land than conventional mirrors.

That means eSolar can build modular power plants near urban areas and transmission lines, lowering costs and avoiding some of the endangered species fights that have slowed Big Solar projects in California. (See Green Wombat’s column on Grist for a first-hand look at eSolar’s Sierra demonstration plant in Southern California.)

The New Mexico solar farm will be built on 450 acres of agricultural land about 10 miles from El Paso, Texas. Utility El Paso Electric (EE), which serves parts of New Mexico, will buy the electricity generated by the solar power plant — enough to power 74,000 homes  — under a 20-year power purchase agreement. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.

“We think there’s room for a lot more solar power plants at this price,” says Gross. “The sun is very good in New Mexico and all the economics that make this project work are very good there.”

In March, First Solar (FSLR) said it would build a 30-megawatt thin-film photovoltaic solar farm in northeastern New Mexico.

eSolar’s five-megawatt Sierra demo plant outside Los Angeles, pictured above, has begun producing steam and will soon start generating electricity — “It’s the only solar power tower operating in North America,” Gross says.

Next year, ground will be broken on an eSolar power plant in India and NRG and eSolar have a deal to supply utility Southern California Edison (EIX) with 245 megawatts of solar electricity.

“The idea of these plants dotting the desert and producing electricity has been our dream for a long time,” says Gross, “and now it’s a reality.”

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solara

photo: BrightSource Energy

As the Nevada legislature debates extending tax breaks for large-scale solar power plants, a new report finds that ramping up solar development in the Silver State could produce thousands of good-paying green jobs while generating nearly $11 billion in economic benefits.

The study from San Francisco-based non-profit Vote Solar concludes that 2,000 megawatts’ worth of big solar thermal and photovoltaic farms — needed to meet Nevada’s electricity demand — would result in 5,900 construction jobs a year during the plants’ building phase, 1,200 permanent jobs and half a billion dollars in tax revenues.

“It is likely that such an investment in solar generating facilities could bring solar and related manufacturing to Nevada,” the reports authors wrote. “The economic impact of such manufacturing development is not included in this analysis, but would add significant additional benefits.”

Vote Solar’s job projections are based on an economic model developed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory to project the impact of solar trough power plants, the most common, if dated, type of Big Solar technology.

The different solar technologies set to come online in the next couple of years could change that equation. No doubt thousands of jobs will be generated by Big Solar but just how many will depend on the mix of solar thermal and photovoltaic power plants that ultimately come online. New technologies like BrightSource Energy’s “power tower,” Ausra’s compact linear fresnel reflector and Stirling Energy Systems’s solar dish may generate similar numbers of jobs. But then there’s eSolar’s power tower solar farms – which uses fields of mirrors called heliostats to focus the sun on a water-filled boiler, creating steam that drives an electricity-generating turbine.  eSolar’s small and prefabricated heliostat arrays cut out much of the skilled labor typically needed on such projects as they can be installed by two workers using a wrench.

Photovoltaic farms essentially take rooftop solar panels and put them on the ground and thus don’t require highly skilled laborers to build turbine power blocks, miles of piping and other infrastructure needed in solar thermal facilities. (They also can be built much more quickly than a solar thermal plant, which is why utilities have been striking deals with companies like First Solar (FSLR) and SunPower (SPWRA) for PV farms.)

A second report released this week — from the Large-Scale Solar Association, an industry group — found that Nevada could gain an edge over Arizona and California in luring solar power plant builders if it extended and sweetened tax incentives.  The three states form something of a golden triangle of solar, offering the nation’s most intense sunshine and vast tracts of government-owned desert land that are being opened up for solar development.

The timing of the reports was no accident. The Nevada Legislature held hearings earlier this week on extending tax breaks for Big Solar that expire in June, and Vote Solar’s utility-scale solar policy director, Jim Baak, went to Carson City to lobby legislators, hoping to head off one proposal to tax renewable energy production.

The Large-Scale Solar report, prepared by a Las Vegas economic consulting firm, found that if legislators let the tax breaks sunset, as it were, the developer of a 100-megawatt solar power plant would pay $55.1 million in taxes in Nevada during the first 15 years of the facility’s operation compared to $26.1 million in Arizona and between $36.1 and $37.9 million in California. If the current incentives are kept, tax payments drop to $25.1 million. A bigger tax break would reduce the tax burden to $14.3 million.

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esolar-smart-scalable-solar

photo: eSolar

California startup eSolar said on Tuesday that it has licensed its solar power technology for the construction of up to 1 gigawatt of solar farms in India over the next decade.

The deal with Indian conglomerate ACME Group marks India’s first move into large-scale solar power and is the biggest announced foray of a United States solar power plant company overseas. The agreement calls for ACME, based in the northern Indian state of Haryana, to invest $30 million in eSolar, which will also earn fees for each of its 46-megawatt modular solar thermal power plants that are built.

A gigawatt, or 1,000 megawatts, of solar energy produces enough electricity to keep the lights on in about 750,000 energy-hogging U.S. homes. Presumably, many more homes and businesses can be powered by a gigawatt in India, where electricity shortages are common and the country relies on greenhouse-gas emitting diesel generators.

“We’re exclusively selling to ACME in India and they’re exclusively using us,” eSolar CEO Bill Gross told Green Wombat. “We’d like to do something like this in Spain, in Australia and the Middle East.”

It’s the second big deal for Pasadena-based eSolar in a week. Last Monday, the company inked an agreement to license its technology to U.S. coal-fired utility NRG (NRG) for the development of up to 500 megawatts of solar power plants in California and the Southwest for Southern California Edison (EIX) and other utilities. Meanwhile, the financial crisis is forcing the consolidation of the solar industry, with Monday’s dual deals — First Solar (FSLR) acquired the solar power plant assets of Silicon Valley OptiSolar while Spanish solar developer Fotowatio bought financier MMA Renewable Ventures’ solar portfolio.

eSolar claims it can generate electricity at lower prices than natural gas-fired power plants by mass-producing mirrors called heliostats that concentrate sunlight on a water-filled receiver atop a tower to create steam that drives a turbine. The heliostats are much smaller than those made by competitors, use far less steel and can be quickly and cheaply installed in the field because they’re controlled by sophisticated software, according to Gross.

That allows eSolar to pack more mirrors into the solar field to create relatively compact power plants that can be located near urban centers rather than in the desert. ACME, which makes everything from telecommunications equipment and refrigeration systems to fuel cells, will begin construction of the first solar farm later this year.

ACME will hire contractors to build the solar power plants while eSolar will provide the heliostat fields, power towers and software systems. ACME so far has signed power purchase agreements with Indian utilities for 250 megawatts, according to eSolar.

“The eSolar system addresses obstacles that have previously plagued solar installations and presents a viable, cost-effective alternative that can scale quickly to meet India’s growing energy needs,” ACME CEO Manoj Upadhyay said in a statement.

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esolar-field_wide_2b
photo: eSolar

SAN FRANCISCO — “It’s all about the software,” says eSolar CEO Bill Gross.

The tech entrepreneur and founder of startup incubator Idealab is explaining how eSolar’s solar power plants can produce carbon-free electricity cheaper than planet-warming natural gas. At the Cleantech Forum in San Francisco, Gross flashes a photo of eSolar’s demonstration solar farm outside the Southern California town of Lancaster, where 24,000 mirrors called heliostats surround two 150-foot towers.  The heliostats concentrate sunlight on a tower containing water-filled boilers and the resulting heat creates steam that drives an electricity-generating turbine. Rivals like BrightSource Energy use similar “power tower” technology but according to Gross, eSolar’s mirror-controlling software and modular plant design will allow it to produce cheaper solar electricity.

For instance, Gross says competitors use large, slightly curved mirrors to focus sunlight. That require big and expensive steel frames to hold the glass in place.  eSolar’s solution: make small flat mirrors the size of an LCD television screen that clamp on to a  5 x 12-inch frame and then use software and Big Iron computing to position the mirrors to create a parabola out of the entire heliostat field.

“We use Moore’s law rather than more steel,” quipped Gross, referring to Intel co-founder Gordon Moore’s maxim that computing power doubles every two years.

The heliostats roll off an assembly line in China with the wiring and sun-tracking motors built in. “The only tool required to install mirrors in the field is a hand wrench,” Gross says. “There’s  no welding in field, you just install the mirrors on the base. We’ve taken all the labor in the field and moved it to an automated factory.”

The heliostats also do not have to be precisely placed in the solar field, which saves time. “The rows can be wavy as the software will correct for it,” Gross notes. “We don’t need to do extensive surveys to design the field; we just need to leave enough space between mirrors.”

The bottom line: The five-megawatt Palmdale project was built in less than six months. “We think we can finish plants before other people start,” Gross told Green Wombat.

Gross says eSolar has also signed a 92-megawatt deal with a New Mexico utility, which he declined to identify until the agreement is announced. He said his Pasadena, Calif.-based company will also soon unveil a contract to build 500 megawatt’s worth of solar farms in Asia. So far, eSolar has spent $30 million acquiring land – mainly privately owned agricultural property – for solar power plants, according to Gross. He told Cleantech Forum participants that eSolar expects internal rates of return for its partners of between 11% and 14% for U.S. power plants and returns of 20% to 30% for overseas projects.

Also saving time and money are the power towers, which are made from two sections of a windmill tower. At 150 feet they’re half the size of competitors’ towers – again, less steel is needed. The lower height and the software systems that allow more mirrors to be crammed into smaller spaces means that eSolar’s power plants can be placed closer to urban areas where transmission lines are available.

Also unique is the boiler that sits atop the tower. Gross gave Green Wombat a close-up look the proprietary technology. About the size of a cargo shipping container, the “cavity receiver” has openings on either side. The heliostats focus sunlight into the interior of the boiler, which is lined with water-filled pipes.

“The benefit is that the light comes in and even if some light is reflected it can have multiple bounces and still hit the pipes,” Gross says. “We can get all the light inside the cavity all because of the software that controls the mirrors.”

Whether Google (GOOG)-backed eSolar’s plants produce electricity at the low rates Gross is claiming won’t be known until they start coming online. But utilities are betting that this solar software works. Southern California Edision (EIX) last year signed a 20-year-contract with eSolar for 245 megawatts of electricity while coal-dependent NRG Energy (NRG) this week agreed to invest $10 million in eSolar in exchange for the right to develop up to 500 megawatts using the company’s technology. (Southern California Edison is betting even bigger on BrightSource Energy’s power tower technology – two weeks ago the utility signed a 1,300 megawatt power purchase agreement with the Oakland startup – also backed by Google – the world’s largest solar deal to date.)

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image001

photo: eSolar

NRG Energy, one of the United States’ most coal-dependent utilities, on Monday signed a deal with California startup eSolar to develop solar power plants.

The agreement calls for NRG  to invest $10 million in Pasadena-based eSolar for the right to use the startup’s technology to develop and operate three solar power projects in California and the Southwest that would generate 500 megawatts of greenhouse gas-free electricity.  NRG ranks as one of the nation’s dirtiest utilities,  spewing 70 million tons of carbon dioxide annually from its coal-fired power plants, according to a 2007 Fortune Magazine story.  But the Princeton, N.J.-based Fortune 500 company has sought to clean up its ways under CEO David Crane, pursuing carbon-capture technology and moving to build nuclear power plants.

Last year eSolar, founded by Idealab’s Bill Gross and backed by Google, won a 20-year contract to supply utility Southern California Edison (EIX) with 245 megawatts of green electricity annually. Last  April, eSolar scored $130 million in funding from Google.org, Google’s (GOOG) philanthropic arm, and other investors to develop solar thermal technology that Gross claims will produce electricity as cheaply as coal-fired power plants.

Like rivals Ausra and BrightSource Energy – which have deals with utility PG&E (PCG) – eSolar will use fields of mirrors to heat water to create steam that drives electricity-generating turbines. Gross says that eSolar’s software allows the company to individually control smaller sun-tracking mirrors – called heliostats – which can be cheaply manufactured and which are more efficient and take up less land than conventional mirrors. According to Gross, that means eSolar can build modular power plants near urban areas and transmission lines rather than out in the desert, lowering costs.

In October, eSolar’s then-CEO told Green Wombat that the company was more interested in being a solar technology provider than a power plant construction company.

The eSolar deal gives NRG (NRG), which operates coal-fired power plants in Texas and the Northeast, a foothold in the California renewable energy market. The first solar farm will go online in 2011 and NRG will have the right to develop 11 of eSolar’s 46-megawatt modular power plants. eSolar currently is building a five-megawatt demonstration power plant in Lancaster, Calif., that is expected to be completed this year.

“By coupling NRG’s construction capabilities and regional operating expertise with eSolar’s innovative … technology, we can advance NRG’s renewable energy portfolio while helping to accelerate development of these important projects on a commercial scale,” said NRG executive Michael Liebelson in a statement.

During a press conference Monday, Liebelson said NRG would be able to take advantage of the 30% investment tax credit for renewable energy projects and intends to apply for federal loan guarantees for such power plants that were included in the recently enacted stimulus package.

The deal, coming less than two weeks after BrightSource Energy signed a 1,300-megawatt power purchase agreement with Southern California Edison, shows that despite the financial crisis the market for renewable energy is showing renewed signs of life.

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